• April 19, 2014

'Someone Searched for You': Academia.edu and Me

A mound of data, both tantalizingly suggestive and wholly inconclusive, presents itself for my consideration

'Someone Searched for You': Academia.edu and Me 1

Dave Plunkert for The Chronicle

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close 'Someone Searched for You': Academia.edu and Me 1

Dave Plunkert for The Chronicle

When it comes to technology, I am not exactly an early adopter. Often I never bother to adopt at all. I own no Kindle, no iPad, no iPod. I have no Facebook account. But I'm no Luddite. I use audio and video in lectures, make use of RSS feeds, and am fine with electronic whiteboards. I suppose I am best described as a highly selective digital user guided by criteria of minimalism, utilitarianism, and self-preservation.

On those grounds I set up an Academia.edu page after seeing my doctoral students doing so. The site seemed to offer a chance to post and aggregate my articles in an open-access format beyond what universities themselves offer. Why do research and write unless people can find our work and make use of it?

Academia.edu's setup didn't take much time. I uploaded a few files and presto, there was a Web page with a fair bit of my writings in one simple place.

Slowly I learned that Academia.edu has other bells and whistles. Some I have explored in a desultory way, such as the ability to "follow" select scholars with mutual interests. Many people seem to upload much more information than I do, including syllabi, teaching evaluations, and conference talks. To me, in fact, the sheer volume of information on Academia.edu makes it too disparate to be of much research use. Mostly I follow people in my own program, largely graduate students. And a mysterious 58 people—from Hong Kong to Spain, few of them actually known to me—"follow" me.

As you can see, I'm not particularly good at using Academia.edu for research or community. Surely others do better. But what makes the site interesting is that it puts at your disposal the kinds of metrics that ordinary citizens don't tend to have at their fingertips, though those metrics are routine for major publications and corporations. It offers a way to monitor the searches that lead readers to your writings.

Every time someone in the world searches the Internet and winds up clicking through to your Academia.edu page, you receive an automated e-mail with a subject header along the lines of: "Someone from the United States searched for you on Google."

The first time that happens, it is a little disconcerting, prompting mild anxiety. Who could it be? Over time, however, you realize that rarely does such a message mean anyone is actually searching for "you." What they search for is often quite opaque—and sometimes funny.

So far my Academia.edu page has attracted 1,715 document views, hardly an avalanche by the standards of major Web sites, which get far more hits than that in a single day. But that's a fair number for me, representing more people than would have seen my writings without the site.

Of those views, a minority came from my name being searched. How do I know? The site's "analytics" feature. Analytics is where the bodies are buried on Academia.edu as surely as they are buried in the footnotes of a journal article. The feature provides an array of data. First, it tells what search engine was used to arrive at your Web page. (Let's just say things aren't looking good for Bing up against Google, if my hits are a gauge.) Then it tells what words were entered, and which of your writings were called up. Finally it assigns a unique number to each visitor. Some visitors are new, some repeats.

So it is that a mound of precise data, both tantalizingly suggestive and wholly inconclusive, presents itself for your consideration.

One thing my Academia.edu stats confirm, if anyone still needs this to be confirmed, is that we live in a global age—one that is nonetheless skewed by existing biases in language and resources. My page has drawn eyes from Tunisia, Greece, Denmark, Poland, Lithuania, Australia, Pakistan, South Korea, Brazil, France, Germany, Thailand, and Turkey, among many other countries. But far and away the two countries from which most of the people have reached my page are the United States and Britain.

Sometimes searchers come upon material in precisely the kind of manner one might prefer. Someone in Canada searching for "Peter Dawidowicz" found my interview in the journal Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas with Kim Moody, a friend of Dawidowicz at the Johns Hopkins University during the civil-rights-movement days. Someone in Britain entering the words "against Eugene Genovese" found a recent reflection I wrote, "Reaction and Revolution: Eugene Genovese (1930-1912)." People from all over the world who seek information on Exile in Buyukada, a film about Trotsky's period in Turkey after Stalin pushed him out of the Soviet Union, come across my review of the movie for The American Historical Review.

All of those examples show why one might make one's stuff available digitally: to have it found by people to whom it might be useful.

In other ways, though, the analytics revelations lead to puzzlement. My favorite pieces get almost no hits. Moreover, many searches that lead someone to my work can seem fairly random.

"Did anyone join the communist party for sex?" What a great question! Surely the answer is yes, if only because people have joined bridge clubs for so much less. Someone in Austria entered those words and landed on an article of mine, although I'm afraid it didn't provide much of an answer. The article, "A Neglected Document on Socialism and Sex," was published in The Journal of the History of Sexuality. The Communist Party is mentioned, but the article's focus is on Socialist Party youth, among whom a document circulated in 1952 advocating decriminalization of same-sex sexuality. The article consistently attracts hits, although I am often left to wonder whether the reader had in mind another site altogether, featuring triplicate use of the letter X.

And then who knows what someone in Bosnia and Herzegovina was seeking when he or she searched for "homosexuality socialism"? Or what a person in Finland sought when searching for "socialistic gay agenda"? That led me to reflect. To seek out a "gay agenda," let alone a "socialistic" one, might seem to indicate a search for redbaiting fodder by a homophobic bigot. Or is such a surmise from the Babel of bytes inadvisable?

Most of the searches are random. Someone looking to find "Christopher York" came upon an interview with Christopher Lasch that Casey Blake and I conducted for The Journal of American History. Let's hope the reader enjoyed it.

Other searches seem to connote obsession. One person—it is clearly the same one—has repeatedly sought out a book review I wrote for Times Higher Education, making me wonder if the book's author is the one drawn to it again and again, like moth to flame.

More and more undergraduates are signing up on Academia.edu, presumably to find information for use in term papers. Recently someone landed upon an article of mine after typing in "give a critique written by Palph Allison 1955." A tiny phone keyboard is probably responsible for that rendering of Ralph Ellison's name, but it hardly inspires confidence in the essay to come.

Sometimes I get the sinking sensation that my research is being used in cut-and-paste plagiarism—a fate, I suppose, to which any material on the Web is vulnerable. Not long ago, someone typed in several sentences taken word for word from an article of mine. My mind's eye conjured the image of an instructor checking the student's work, tipped off by vocabulary or a turn of phrase. A plagiarist caught, with both copying and catching courtesy of Academia.edu?

An edition I edited of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle gets a lot of hits from people clearly searching for it, typically at the beginning of a term. Presumably students are assigned the Bedford/St. Martin's edition and try to find a free version of my assigned introduction while actually purchasing a cheaper edition. Can't say as I blame them, but the only thing they get when they hit my page is a referral to my publisher's Web site. Cruel world.

Some search questions border on the existential. "What was life like in 1918 for social critics?" What was life like for anyone in 1918? Or now?

My personal takeaway: Academia.edu points toward what universities could offer too—a simple way to make our research easily accessible to the public via links on our own homepages. Maybe some universities do, but none I've ever worked at.

For now, Academia.edu is free of charge and lacking in commercial nonsense. Surely down the line it will look to monetize its many members, and if that involves intrusiveness or expense, I may delete my account. But for the time being, I'm content, with the cherry on top being "analytics," a word whose half-scientific, half-Freudian resonance make it just right for a feature that produces half-scientific, half-Freudian effects on the mind.

Christopher Phelps is an associate professor of American studies at the University of Nottingham, in England.

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